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Traders and Traitors
cover art © Brad Fraunfelter

 

 

Warleader Sixth Stavin Kel'Aniston. In the entire two-hundred and seventeen year history of Kavinston as a free community,
no boy had ever won an officer's star on his first expedition.

Now Stavin is embarking on his second expedition. The question on everyone's mind was simple:
What kind of trouble will Stavin get into this time?
Book Two in the Stavin Kel'Aniston Dragon Blessed series.

 

 

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Traders and Traitors

fantasy

Loren K. Jones

 

 

 

Chapter 1

Stavin Kel'Aniston sneezed mightily as he sorted through the old scrolls and books in the Kavinston Archive. Whatever he might be during the season when the young warriors went to the low lands as caravan guards, Warleader Sixth of Kel'Kavin, Friend of Evandia, or recipient of dragon-scale armor from the dragon on the mountain, during the winter he was Apprentice Scribe Stavin, and his main duty was finding scrolls for his wife, Sharindis, or their master. He found the scroll he was searching for and carefully made his way out of the archive's storage room. He spent a few moments brushing off the worst of the dust before going to deliver the scroll to his wife.

Sharindis was at her sun-lit table in the corner of the Archive's office, using her new crystal to help her read and copy an old scroll. She heard the door open and looked toward it, smiling at the dim shadow of her husband. "Did you find it?" she asked.

"Yes, and it's in good shape," he replied, unrolling the scroll and reading a bit of it. "There's hardly any fading at all."

"That's good. Even with my new crystal, I can barely make out most of this one," she said, gesturing toward the ancient scroll on her brightly lit desk.

"Then why don't you trade with me? I'll take over copying that one and you can start on this one," Stavin suggested. He looked at the manuscript she had been copying and shook his head. Even with good eyesight, he could barely make out parts of it.

Shari leaned over and kissed him, and the quick peck she had intended turned into something longer and much more intense. "Thank you." She sighed. "My eyes were starting to hurt."

Stavin chuckled and carefully removed the manuscript from her table, then her copy. He replaced them with the other manuscript and a fresh, blank scroll. "There you are. Now, if Master Kel'Zorgan doesn't send me looking for something else, I might get some of it done before--"

"Ah, Stavin, there you are," Master Kel'Zorgan said from the doorway. "Did you find the treaty scroll?"

"Yes, Sir," Stavin answered.

"Good. What shape is it in?"

"Better than most, Sir," Stavin answered.

The old Master Scribe hummed for a moment. "Give it to Shari, and you take over that one. I can barely read that mess."

"Yes, Sir," Stavin replied, not bothering to tell their master that they had already done what he'd just ordered.

"Very good. Carry on, now. I have a class waiting for their history lesson." He bustled off while Stavin and Shari went back to work.

As Stavin worked, he let his mind wander back a year. He'd climbed the mountain in order to prove himself to Dorvina Kel'Carin so she would consent to marry him. He'd refused to run away from the magically induced fear that the dragon used to keep intruders away, and the dragon had rewarded his bravery with golden armor made from its own scales. He'd come down the mountain a changed man in more ways than just the golden dragon-scale armor. Events had conspired to deny him Dorvina anyway, and he reflected that was probably the best thing that had ever happened to him.

Though Sharindis could barely see, she was a scribe, like he wanted to be. They were well-matched in most things, even if she was two hands taller. That didn't matter to either of them. Their minds and temperaments matched, and that's what really counted.

Stavin stifled a chuckle as he thought of how things had worked out. Dorvina had wanted to marry Harner Kel'Chamlin, but he'd proven himself to be less of a man than she had hoped. In the end she rejected Harner, and accepted Darak Kel'Markat instead. Stavin had become friends with Darak, and the look of misery in his friend's eyes lately made it clear that Dorvina was not the ideal mate he'd thought she would be.

Stavin and Shari spent their time in the archive or at home together, enjoying one another's company as they read or studied. They had both been loners for a long time before they found each other, and they found being married to be so much more than either of them had dreamed.

Several days later, they were relaxing in bed on their rest day. Shari traced circles on Stavin's bare chest with her fingers. "You know, Stavin, the Gods Above must like me."

"They have reason to, but what makes you say that now?" Stavin asked.

"They gave me you," she replied, laying her cheek against his chest.

Stavin chuckled. "They must love me, then."

Shari wrapped an arm across his stomach and squeezed. "I love you."

"I love you, too. How are you feeling?"

"I don't have morning sickness anymore, thank the Gods Above." Then she chuckled and asked. "Why?"

Stavin slid down so he could kiss her. His world was complete, so long as he had her. The long years of fighting to be accepted as a man had come to an end after the first night of their marriage, and he'd been accepted by the people of Kavinston as well. For the most part, at least.

There was still some jealousy of his accomplishments during his first expedition. I should have expected that. After all, he'd earned well over fifteen thousand gold crowns. Well, it had been given to him because of the King of Evandia's favor, but it was his by right. He'd also killed thirty men in combat and become the first man in the history of Kel'Kavin to earn an officer's star on his first expedition to the low lands. What most of the jealous people seemed to forget was that every one of those men had been trying to kill him as well, and most of them had been half again his size. He had proof at last that even though he hadn't grown a finger's width since he'd had that fever when he was ten, he was a true warrior.

There had also been one last incident early in the winter between Stavin and his childhood tormenters. That incident had left him with a new form of amusement during his hours training with the rest of the young warriors.

 

Chapter 2

Harner Kel'Chamlin was in a stunned funk for weeks after his petition of marriage had been rejected by Dorvina Kel'Carin. He spent his empty hours reviewing everything, going over it in his mind again and again. He knew, in spite of what Elder Kel'Carin and the others had said, that Stavin the Runt hadn't made a single kill. He knew it. The Runt had somehow forced Barvil to say he'd made those kills, and Barvil had taken care of the others. It had to be that way.

He knew that Barvil had to have been the one who'd turned Dorvina against him as well. She was an obedient daughter, and would do as her father commanded. It was one of the things he loved most about her. She would obey her husband just as she obeyed her father.

It was the Runt who had ruined his life. It had always been the Runt, especially when he had been bigger than Harner, back before he'd stopped growing. As soon as he was the bigger boy, he'd shown the Runt how tough he was. He and his friends had beaten the Runt bloody, stripped him to the skin, and thrown him in a snowdrift.

Now, it was time for another lesson for the Runt.

Harner and his friends, Jallav, Lanik, and Heral, met after their mandatory practice day with the Warmaster and made their plan. "He'll run away like the coward we all know he is, and that'll show everyone that I'm right about him." Harner laughed.

Jallav asked, "Harner, are you sure about this? I mean, what if he doesn't run?"

"He always runs," Harner snapped as he glared at his friend. "He's a coward. He won't face me."

The next day, Harner and his friends were waiting for Stavin as he walked past after his day of practice, and announced their presence by striking him in the back and sending him sprawling in the slushy street. Stavin came up immediately, crouching as his hands flexed around a weapon he didn't have.

"Wah, wah, Runt. Run, crying, home to your mama," Harner taunted.

Stavin's lip curled in contempt as he brushed himself off. "Haven't you got anything better to do, Harner?" he asked, ignoring the rest.

"You need a lesson, Runt," Jallav snarled as he took a menacing step toward Stavin.

Stavin laughed. "Are you going to teach me?" he asked. "You stayed home instead of joining the expedition. What lesson are you going to teach me?"

"You better run, Runt," Heral said, taking a step forward, but Stavin's laughter stopped him in his tracks.

"What are you laughing at, Runt?" Harner demanded.

"You. The four of you. Do you think you can take me with just four men? Am I so fearsome that--?"

"What's the meaning of this?" a voice demanded.

All five youths turned to find Elders Kel'Landis and Kel'Narin standing in the street.

"We were just--" Lanik began, but was silenced.

"You were just about to attack Warleader Sixth Kel'Aniston, and not one of you with so much as a single stripe to your name!" Elder Kel'Narin shouted. "You four are charged with assaulting and threatening a Warleader, and don't think you'll get off easy just because you're my nephew, Lanik."

"But he's--"

"Silence!" the two Elders shouted together as they advanced on the four suddenly quiet young men and grabbed them by their collars.

"The Runt--" Harner began.

A stinging slap and a shout of "I said silence!" from Elder Kel'Narin closed his mouth and sent a shiver of fear through his beefy frame. Elders seldom got physical, and the two hollowed stars on his shoulder would have made Harner obey anyway.

The boys sulked as the Elders marched the four of them into the Council Chamber and forced them to stand in the center of the room while the rest of the council was sent for. Soon Chief Elder Kel'Davin, Warmaster Kel'Horval, and Elder Kel'Kaffrey arrived and the Council was convened. Because of the seriousness of the charges against the youngsters, Chief Elder Kel'Davin ordered the door closed and barred. Then he turned to Elder Kel'Narin and nodded.

Elder Kel'Narin stood and looked at the young men. "Harner Kel'Chamlin, Jallav Kel'Corkal, Lanik Kel'Narin, Heral Kel'Vardal," he began, looking each young man in the eye as he spoke his name, "you are charged with insubordination and assault against Warleader Sixth Stavin Kel'Aniston."

"He's the troublemaker," Harner snapped.

Lanik agreed. "He's always acting like he's--"

"Be silent!" Elder Kel'Kaffrey snapped.

Elder Kel'Narin nodded deeply to Elder Kel'Kaffrey before continuing. "Elder Kel'Landis and I witnessed most of the altercation. What you did is not in question."

Harner stepped forward with his hands balled into fists at his side. "He's the troublemaker. He's always acting like he's special, like he's better than me. He's not! He's just a little runt who should have been killed when he was born!"

Mikal Kel'Kaffrey stood and looked at the boy. "It's strange." He looked at his fingernails. "You have never managed to get along with Stavin, and it's time for us to know what it is you have against him."

"He was always pushing me around," Harner groused. "He used to push all of us around because he's from a higher ranking family."

"Yeah, and he was bigger than any of us," Lanik agreed.

"So you claim that Stavin was a bully before, so you have a right to bully him now?" Warmaster Kel'Horval said as he considered the boys.

"He started it," Jallav said in a sulky tone.

Elder Kel'Kaffrey sighed. "It's been six years and Stavin has not only made his first expedition, which two of you have not, he's earned his first star. That is something you four must honor, no matter what has happened between you before. Stavin is a Warleader."

"But he's small! He's weak," Lanik said loudly.

Harner snapped, "Yeah, he's a runt! He shouldn't have been allowed to live."

Elder Kel'Kaffrey shook his head. "Stavin was a normal boy, growing at a normal pace until he took a fever. If I remember correctly, he was about ten years old. He wasn't a deformed baby that it would have been cruel to keep alive. But, given his accomplishments, that is irrelevant."

"But he's small!" Heral said, stepping up beside Harner. "He's a runt, and the runt of the litter has to be killed so it doesn't breed and weaken the line."

Now Jallav stepped up and nodded. "He's a coward, too. He's afraid to fight."

"Enough of this," Chief Elder Kel'Davin said as he rubbed his forehead. "Summon Warleader Kel'Aniston and we'll hear his side of this as well. It should have been stopped years ago, but we had hoped you boys would eventually grow up."

Warmaster Kel'Horval stood and walked to the door, unlatching it and speaking to someone outside, then turned back to the council. He said, "Several boys have gone to fetch him," as he leaned against the door. It was just a few moments later that there was a knock at the door and he opened it again.

"Stavin, face the Council," he commanded.

Stavin quickly moved to the center of the Council Chamber and snapped to attention.

"Warleader Sixth Stavin Kel'Aniston reporting to the Council of Elders as ordered, Sirs!"

Chief Elder Kel'Davin waited until Charvil had returned to his seat before speaking. "Warleader Kel'Aniston, earlier today you were attacked by these four young men. They have claimed that you brought on the incident by being a troublemaker and that you are a coward. Have you anything to say?"

Stavin's face darkened with anger when the Chief Elder called him a coward, and he flexed his hands around nothing for a moment before speaking. "Sir, I am not a coward. I believe I have proven that." His voice was soft, but the anger in it was clear for all of the Elders to hear.

"You're a coward, Runt!" Harner shouted, stepping out to face Stavin. "You never stand your ground and fight. You always run away."

Stavin laughed and took a step back from Harner, grinning widely. He asked, "You think I'm a coward because I run away from four bullies who are each half again my size?"

"Yeah, a coward," Jallav said as he stepped toward Stavin.

Stavin looked Jallav in the eye and grinned. "What am I supposed to do, fight impossible odds and let the four of you beat and strip me again?"

"You're always acting like you're better than us, but you're just a stinking coward," Lanik snapped.

Stavin shook his head. "I am better than you, Lanik. I always have been. You've never beaten me in the circle. None of you have," he said in a nearly normal voice as he looked at the other boys. "I'd have been a bigger fool than you not to run away from the four of you. That's why I thought you were so funny today. It's always been the four of you against me. None of you has ever tried to face me one-on-one."

Harner stepped forward with his fists raised and shouted, "You need a lesson, Runt!"

But the Warmaster's bellow stopped him in his tracks.

"Harner! Stand at attention!"

Chief Elder Kel'Davin stood and the other Elders stood with him. "Harner Kel'Chamlin, Lanik Kel'Narin, Heral Kel'Vardal, and Jallav Kel'Corkal," he began, saying each name slowly, with a slight pause between each, "you stand convicted by your own words of insubordination and assault against Warleader Kel'Aniston. If you were truly men, we would be sentencing you to five lashes each for these breaches of discipline. However, you are not men. You are nothing but bully-boys who have never faced a real warrior."

The Chief Elder turned his attention to Stavin. "Warleader, we regret this incident, and ask your understanding concerning these boys and their punishment."

Stavin bowed slightly before answering. "They are boys, not men. Let them be punished as boys."

Chief Elder Kel'Davin nodded and turned to his left. "Warmaster, these four are yours to punish as you see fit. But don't disable them. All four of them will be going to the low lands in the spring, hopefully to learn the difference between themselves and real warriors."

The Warmaster smiled thinly as he looked at the boys. "Since the four of you enjoy four-on-one combat so much, that shall be your punishment. I have to wonder, though, how much you'll enjoy being the one facing four?"

 

Chapter 3

Stavin spent most of the winter working on projects for Master Scribe Kel'Zorgan, and the ancient Book of Inatat when he could. The book was as old as he had first thought, and perhaps even older. Once he and Shari had mastered the differences in the ancient glyphs, he copied the book while Shari wrote down the translation.

The Book of Inatat was a history of the ancient Kingdom of Vaskan in what was present day Coravia. The scribes of that time detailed the happenings during the reign of Inatat, son of Cortat, Sixteenth King of Vaskan. It had started out gruesomely enough, with twenty servants being cremated alive inside King Cortat's pyre. Vaskan was not a kind kingdom. Inatat had ruled for a long time, and they had barely covered the first ten years as the winter passed. Even so, they had copied nearly a hundred pages of the book already and translated it into the common script.

The Council of Elders kept the training grounds open through the winter and all of the young men were required to spend every third day at practice, apprentice scribe or not. Stavin traded his training day with another warrior so he could watch Harner and the rest as they "practiced" four-on-one combat against the fourth and fifth-year warriors on practice days.

Against all custom and expectation, Stavin refused, very respectfully of course, when Warmaster Kel'Horval tried to finally start him on sword instruction. As a substitute, he asked for advanced knife-fighting instructions and found himself facing Elder Mikal Kel'Kaffrey.

"Charvil tells me that you want to learn knife-fighting instead of the sword, Stavin. Why is that?" Mikal asked when they began their first lesson.

"I'm finally facing the truth, Sir: I can't handle a full-size sword. No matter how hard I've tried, I just don't have the upper body strength. I've learned to accept that. However, I also learned the hard way that knife-fighting isn't as easy as it looks. Kahn taught me enough to keep me from getting stabbed with my own knife again like I did last year, but I need a backup for my Tongue, Sir," Stavin answered.

Elder Kel'Kaffrey nodded slowly. "Very well. First, take off your plate armor. Your mail will protect you, but I want you to know you can still be hurt if you let me get through. It'll help keep your mind on what you're doing." Mikal started slow, using sticks in place of knives. Stavin started bringing home bruises because Mikal was every bit as skilled a master with knives as Charvil was with a sword.

It took most of the winter for Stavin to master the knife, but Mikal wasn't through with him. "Now two knives," was all he said when Stavin had managed to land his tenth blow against Mikal's armored torso. Stavin's light build and lightning-quick reflexes gave him an advantage with knives, and it only took him another moon to become as proficient with two knives as he was with one.

As Warmaster, it was still Charvil's duty to test Stavin's skill before allowing him out into the world. Stavin reported to the circle in the training ground in full armor as instructed. The Warmaster walked out in his full armor with a Dragon's Tongue in his hand and joined Stavin in the circle.

"Varik, come take Stavin's Dragon's Tongue," he commanded and smiled as his youngest child ran forward to do his bidding.

"Sir?" Stavin asked, tilting his head to the side.

"You'll use this one, Stavin. I don't want to face those blades. This is a real test, not practice. You'll face me with Dragon's Tongue and knife against my sword and knife. The blades of this 'Tongue are dull, as is my sword, but they are otherwise unchanged. We fight till one of us lands three blows. Mikal, call the count."

Stavin hefted the practice Dragon's Tongue and grimaced. The haft was longer than his personal weapon, being based on an oak quarterstaff that was matched to a normal-sized man. It was heavier as well. The spear-points that tipped each end were soft iron, not even steel, and dragged at his hands. Still, he'd learned to fight with one of these Dragon's Tongues long before the dragon on the mountain had granted him his armor and weapon made from its own scales.

Elder Kel'Kaffrey began counting loudly backwards. "Three, two, one, begin!" Then he stepped back and smiled in anticipation of his student proving that he'd learned his lessons well.

Stavin attacked, but Charvil was ready for him and blocked the blow, then caught the return strike from Stavin's top blade. Stavin didn't stop moving and his next strike rang off Charvil's back plate just as Charvil's sword skimmed a hair's-breadth away from Stavin's arm. Stavin took advantage of the opening and struck Charvil a hard blow in the chest. If the Dragon's Tongue hadn't been dull, it would have been a killing blow.

Charvil roared and attacked, but Stavin was still moving and ducked in close to strike Charvil on the back of the knee, and used the rebound from that blow to strike his shoulder.

Charvil's free hand clamped down on Stavin's shoulder, but a sudden sharp blow to his underarm made him let go and jump back. Stavin had a knife in his left hand and the Dragon's Tongue in his right.

Stavin feinted high with his Dragon's Tongue but attacked low with his knife. Charvil met the attack easily and moved to overpower Stavin, only to trip on the haft of the Dragon's Tongue that Stavin had jammed between his legs. As Charvil started to fall the knife in Stavin's hand struck his throat, sliding lightly across his mail.

Charvil hit the ground on his back and stayed where he was, staring up at Stavin in shock. "Barvil wasn't exaggerating, was he?" he asked as he caught his breath.

"Sir?" Stavin asked as he leaned on his Dragon's Tongue, wondering what Barvil had been saying about him.

"Never mind, Stavin. That was three killing blows for you, two with your knife. I don't think I've been this badly overmatched in all my years as Warmaster. I didn't even land one blow."

Stavin panted as he leaned on his Dragon's Tongue and grinned. "Blame Kahn. Or thank him. Last year I learned that even with my armor on I can get hurt if I get hit, so I concentrate a lot of effort on not getting hit," Stavin said as he offered his father-in-law a hand up. "Elder Kel'Kaffrey reinforced those lessons through the winter."

"I should have believed Kahn when he said you're as fast as a rattlesnake. Varik!" he suddenly snapped and Stavin looked over to see his little brother-in-law in a fighting pose with the golden Dragon's Tongue in his hands. "Return Stavin's weapon," Charvil commanded and Varik quickly did as he was told.

"It isn't a toy, Varik," Stavin said as he put his weapon at rest. "Even light, accidental contact with these blades can take off someone's hand." The fact that he had to look slightly up at the twelve-year-old didn't matter in the least to either of them.

"Yes, Stavin," Varik answered, then he blushed because his voice chose that moment to slip back into a soprano.

Stavin smiled as he fought not to laugh. "My fifth season and your first season will coincide. If we are sent out together, I may let you try using it for real."

"Really!?"

"If we are together," Stavin answered, confident that he had just arranged to pay back Kahndar for all the help he'd given him. Though no member of the veteran's contingent would ever admit it, everyone knew that such arrangements were always made.

Charvil patted Stavin's shoulder. "On your way now, Stavin. Varik and his class have some practicing to do if any of them want to match you with a Dragon's Tongue."

Stavin snapped to attention and bowed deeply to the Warmaster before heading home. He waited until he was out of the fortress before he let his smile show. He let his limp show as well. Though he would never admit it to the Warmaster, he'd twisted his back getting away from Charvil's attack and wanted nothing more than to stretch out and get Shari to rub some heating salve on his strained muscles.

Stavin was still smiling when he got home and went to find his wife. She was sitting at the small table near the window, reading one of the books that he'd brought home last summer. "Shari, my back is killing me. Would you rub some of that heating salve on it?

"Of course," she answered. "How did you get hurt?"

"Fighting with your dad," Stavin explained. "He was testing me to see if I'm up to speed to go out this year."

"You didn't let him hit you, did you?"

"No," Stavin laughed, "but he came really close. I hurt myself getting out of the way."

Shari shook her head, but she was smiling. "And did you hit him?"

"Yes," Stavin admitted. "Three times."

"Oh, Gods Above and Below!" Shari exclaimed and then laughed. "That must have come as a shock to him. How did he take it?"

Stavin shook his head. "Pretty well, as far as I could tell. He said something about Barvil talking about me, telling stories about last year."

"Well, let's get you upstairs and out of your armor, and I'll rub some salve on your back. Did you hurt anything else?" Shari was moving toward the stairs confidently with her staff just a finger's-breadth from the floor. When it hit the bottom stair she climbed quickly, counting as she went. Her staff never touched anything else all the way into their room.

Three days later, Stavin received orders to report to the training grounds in full armor again. When he arrived, he received a surprise. Warmaster Kel'Horval waved him over to where a year-group of students stood at attention.

The Warmaster had a very serious look on his face as he looked down at Stavin. "I have something special for you to do, Stavin, and I've already cleared it with the Council and Arlen. Today, and every day until the expedition leaves, you will be drilling the boys who are going out on their first expedition this year with Dragon's Tongues. You are possibly the best we've ever had with the Tongue, and we want you to pass on as much as you can. Don't worry about style and finesse. Teach them how to stay alive."

"Yes, Sir," Stavin snapped.

"Your students await--Warleader Kel'Aniston."

Stavin walked over to face the group of twenty-one boys who would become men in just eighteen days and bowed his head. He received deep bows of respect from his students in return. These boys had all been present when Stavin had been tested by the Warmaster, and stood in awe of his accomplishment. While each of them had managed to score a blow against the Warmaster in order to be passed, none of them had done so without being scored upon.

"Good morning. These lessons are not meant to teach you how to use a Dragon's Tongue. You already know that. What I am going to try and teach you is how to avoid your opponent long enough to put that knowledge to use."

Almost as one the boys shouted, "Yes, Warleader Kel'Aniston!"

Stavin began with his specialty of strike and evade. It was a technique that emphasized speed over power. Misdirection and cunning took the place of face-to-face fighting, and Stavin learned that teaching isn't as easy as it looks either.

As the end of the winter drew near, Stavin's students were joined by several young men who had already made their first trip to the low lands--and two other young men as well. Harner, Jallav, Lanik, and Heral appeared one morning, standing at the front of the year group.

Stavin felt his stomach muscles tighten as the old fear reasserted itself. "What do you want, Harner?" he asked in a low, intense voice.

"We were ordered to report," Harner snarled.

"And?"

"And we're here," Jallav said in a tight tone.

Stavin looked over and saw his father-in-law watching him. Turning back to his students, he bowed his head slightly. "Very well. Harner, you're first," Stavin said, picking up a practice Dragon's Tongue that had been modified to his size and entering a practice circle.

Harner joined him a moment later. "Strike and evade, Harner. The idea is to not let me hit you as much as it is for you to hit me. Call it, Lanik," Stavin snapped.

Lanik counted down from three, and Harner attacked. He'd learned a lot in the moons of four-on-one combat instruction he'd received, and he was going to show Stavin the Runt exactly what it felt like to--

Stavin's Dragon's Tongue rang off the side of Harner's helmet. "Wake up! Don't just wade in swinging! You'll die in a hurry that way. Avoid me. Don't let me kill you on the first exchange. Again!" Stavin attacked, and this time Harner lasted through three exchanges before Stavin's weapon stabbed into his breast plate.

Stavin all but shouted, "Gods Below, Harner! Move! Don't stand there like a tree. Move like a willow in the wind. Again!"

Harner attacked, all sense of finesse lost in his rage against the runt. He drove straight at Stavin and suddenly found himself looking up at the sky, wondering how he'd gotten to the ground.

"You won't last past your first fight if you keep acting like it's just practice, Harner," Stavin said from where he was standing, leaning on his Dragon's Tongue. "Unless you get it in your mind that a single blow can kill you, you'll be left in a low land grave."

"I'm gonna kill you, Runt!" Harner snarled as he climbed to his feet.

Stavin let him recover, then took a ready stance. "Try," was all he said.

Harner bellowed like a ruptured bull and came at Stavin with his Dragon's Tongue held low to stab him in the gut. Stavin swept Harner's weapon aside as he dodged, and brought his lower blade over the top to crash down on the joint between Harner's helmet and the shoulder of his breast plate, sending the big youth face-first into the dirt.

Stavin put the point of his Dragon's Tongue against the back of Harner's neck and held him down. "I can't believe the Warmaster passed you. Don't get married before we leave, Harner. You won't be back, and there are enough widows every year without adding yours."

Stavin left Harner spitting dirt and walked to the next circle. "Jallav, you're next."

 

Chapter 4

Winter slowly released its hold on the mountains and the gap was cleared to let the inhabitants of Kavinston out into the rest of Farindia. The first to go out were hunters searching for deer, elk, or mountain bison to bring some much-needed fresh meat into the valley. The winter had been as bad as any in living memory, and many houses had been emptied as families moved in together to conserve fuel.

Stavin's brothers had brought their fledgling families back to their father's house and took over the large rooms that the boys and girls had used when they were younger. They brought the extra supplies that Stavin had given them as well, so there was no hunger in their house. Other houses were not so lucky, and Marinis stopped drawing on the community store to leave more for the households who hadn't been fortunate enough to have had a son with Barvil's group during the summer.

The days passed quickly, and all too soon the Elders Council's messenger was knocking at the door. "Good evening, Karlit," Kahndar Kel'Horval said as he bowed. "I got drafted to deliver the list this year. Bahrandik is called for his fifth expedition and Stavin is called for his second expedition."

"I will inform them, Kahndar. Thank you," Karlit said and closed the door. He turned to find everyone watching him. "You all heard that."

"It was to be expected," Marinis said.

As always, the three days between the announcement and assembly were a study in confusion, but the day finally dawned and the expedition was assembled. This year, however, the expedition was larger than ever before. When Chief Elder Kel'Davin addressed them, he explained the change.

"Good morning men, and you are all men this day. Many of you have noticed that there are a lot more of you than usual. There are two reasons for this. First, there was this winter. It was much harder than normal and we had to use the grain reserve for the first time in sixty years. Replenishing that reserve will require extra gold and the extra groups must provide that gold.

"Second is a request from the Kavadian Trading House of Zel'Vandar for six groups to escort their caravans. While such a request is not unheard of, it is unusual and we are going to take full advantage of it. Warmaster Kel'Carin will be leading sixty-six of you to Kavadia. The other hundred and ten will go to Trade Town as usual. Because of the need for extra men, we called extra veterans for duty. We know this came as a shock for some of you, but you men know why we need you. Sort yourselves out when you divide into teams in Trade Town. Due to the nature of the Zel'Vandar contract and our desire to continue it in the future, the Council has allowed Warmaster Kel'Carin his choice of fourth- and fifth-year men. Stavin and Karvik will be going with him, of course. Stavin's status in Evandia brought us an extra twenty gold crowns last season, and Zel'Vandar has offered us the same terms this year for a group that includes him."

The Chief Elder allowed his people to react to his announcement for a moment before saying, "Barvil Kel'Carin, I charge you to take them out and bring them home again."

Barvil shouted, "Yes, Sir!" and turned his horse toward the gap and their destinations. The expedition traveled together for two days before reaching the road that led to Kavadia. Barvil clasped forearms with Nahval Kel'Kaffrey and then led his portion of the expedition east.

The trip that had taken eleven days with the wagon only took seven on horseback and Barvil led his men into Markavia Cross late the seventh day. An old man came out to meet the warriors as they dismounted. "You've missed Sahren and the others by two days, warrior," he said. "They've gone ahead to Aravad to load up. You've brought the full sixty and six?"

"I have," Barvil answered.

The old man nodded and turned away. "Let's get you some food. You'll have to sleep rough. We can put you in the wagon barns with your mounts, but we don't have beds enough."

"That will be fine," Barvil replied, leading his horse as he followed the old man. The food turned out to be stew that had been simmering for three days waiting for them. It had probably started with distinct meat, roots, and tubers in it, but by the time the warriors filled their bowls it was an almost homogenous mash. Still, after ten days of boiled beans and journey bread, the men of the expedition weren't going to turn it down.

Barvil led them out the next morning and spent two days chasing the wagons. They caught up to Sahren in Aravad as the wagons were being loaded. Master Trader Sahren saw them and brought Davan Zel'Vandar out to meet them as they dismounted.

"I see that your council agreed to my proposal, and I see young Friend Stavin is with you as well. Excellent. We are sending Sahren into Evandia again and we'd like young Stavin with her." Lord Zel'Vandar leaned forward as if Sahren wasn't right next to him and said, "I think she's taken a liking to the boy. Motherly, you know."

"Uncle Davan!" Sahren said in shock, then laughed. "When someone saves your life as many times as Stavin saved mine, you want them around."

Barvil laughed and said, "Let's hope that this year is less exciting in that department. It's hard enough making him behave with one star on his shoulder. Give him two and he'll be unmanageable."

* * *

Stavin and Karvik saw Barvil talking with Trader Sahren and Lord Zel'Vandar and shook their heads. "They're talking about us," Stavin said, looking up at Karvik. Sometime during the winter, Karvik had added another hand in height.

"They're talking about you," Karvik countered.

"You're probably right. I have something to take care of. Excuse me," Stavin said, and strode away. He saw the diminutive figure of Kethlan and hurried over to his wagon.

"Ah, Stavin, just in time. Lend a hand here," Kethlan said and grabbed one end of a long box. Stavin automatically did as he was asked, then remembered why he had gone looking for Kethlan.

"Kethlan, I want to send a shipment of grain home to Kavinston," Stavin said as he grabbed the next box.

"Zel'Vandar doesn't handle grain, Stavin," Kethlan said as they lifted the box, "but Davan can help make arrangements for you. Help me with these last four boxes and we'll go talk to him."

Stavin and Kethlan finished loading the wagon, then walked over to where Lord Davan was watching the proceedings. "Davan, a moment of your time please," Kethlan said and Lord Davan smiled.

"What mischief have you gotten into now?" Lord Davan asked with a grin.

"Our young friend here is looking to send a shipment of grain to Kel'Kavin. I'd like permission to put Zel'Vandar's name behind it to ensure he gets treated fairly."

Lord Zel'Vandar nodded. "You have it. Go to Rahndahl Zel'Valin. His warehouse has a good supply of grains left."

Stavin bowed deeply. "Thank you, Lord Zel'Vandar.

Lord Davan smiled down at Stavin. "I believe in doing well by those who do well by me, young man. That is trade at its best."

Kethlan and Stavin walked away and Stavin led them to Barvil's side. He snapped to attention and said, "Sir, I request permission to go with Kethlan to the gold merchants and the grain merchants."

Barvil looked at him and nodded. "Take Kar, Aldric, Tavan, and Sharvit with you. What are you planning?"

"I know the Council is sending for supplies, but I want to make sure Shari, Sora, and the other pregnant women have extra," Stavin replied.

Barvil raise an eyebrow, but no objection. "You certainly have the resources. Very well, but let Kethlan do the bargaining. He's almost as tricky as Sahren."

Kethlan drew himself up to his full height and then bowed very low. "Why, thank you, Barvil. That's the nicest thing anyone has said to me this year." Stavin and Kethlan walked away laughing, gathered the warriors, then marched out of the compound.

Their first destination was the Gold Merchants' Chapter House where Stavin withdrew twenty gold crowns. When Karvik and Kethlan looked at him curiously he explained, "I left all but five silver crowns with Shari. I want a reserve in case we don't see much combat."

Kethlan then led them to the warehouses of the Zel'Valin Trading House, where they were met by a large man in a leather apron. "Hello, horse-thief. What brings you to darken my door?" the man asked as he smiled and clasped forearms with Kethlan.

"We're looking to send a shipment of grain to the Kel'Kavin Valley, Dardan," Kethlan replied.

"How much?" Dardan Kel'Valin asked and Stavin leaned forward to whisper in Kethlan's ear.

"Fifty bags each of wheat, rye, barley, and beans," Kethlan replied.

Darden looked at his old companion and asked, "Is this for Zel'Vandar or these warriors?" as he looked at Stavin and his friends.

Kethlan smiled. "Friend Stavin is paying, but the contact is endorsed by Zel'Vandar."

"Oh," Darden said softly. "Very well. Now, as to the price."

The two traders started bargaining at a pace that left Stavin and the others blinking in confusion. Far sooner than any of them expected, the two traders clasped forearms to seal the bargain. "Seven gold crowns it is," Dardan said, shaking his head in sorrow.

Stavin stepped forward and counted out the gold and placed a slip of parchment with it. "Seven gold crowns, as agreed. This note will tell the guards what's going on."

"As agreed. Be careful about spending too much time with this horse-thief, young man. He can be a bad influence," Darden said as he collected the coins and note.

Stavin grinned and replied, "I've been warned, Sir, but he's the only person over ten years of age who I can stand eye-to-eye with." Everyone laughed at that before they left the grain merchant to see to their contract.

Kethlan was chuckling as they walked back to the Zel'Vandar compound. "Dardan will see to it that your shipment is properly taken care of. The Zel'Vandar endorsement will see to that."

"Sir, why did that man call you a horse-thief?" Aldric Kel'Ranat asked.

"When we were young, your age or thereabouts, I got the best of him in a bargain over a horse and he's never forgotten it," Kethlan answered with a grin.

"How good of a deal did you get?" Tavan Kel'Vorash asked.

"He had started by asking for one hundred silver and I had countered with thirty. We had worked our way to seventy and fifty when a pretty girl walked by and distracted him. When he turned back he asked, 'Where was I?' I said 'Thirty' and he said 'Thirty?' and I said 'Done!' Let that be a lesson to you all: Keep your eyes on your opponent and concentrate on what you're doing."

"Excellent advice," Barvil said as he joined them.

"Your shipment will be on the road tomorrow, Barvil," Kethlan said with a slight bow.

"Not mine, Kethlan. This was all Stavin's idea. We leave in the morning, men. Until then, keep the hands together," he commanded and his men formed up behind him. The other five members of their group soon joined them and sorted themselves out.

The other groups had been divided out to Zel'Vandar's other five caravans. Stavin only saw one wagon that didn't match the Zel'Vandar colors and nodded to himself when he saw the two women on the seat. They were the survivors from the Reynadian caravan, and that realization made Stavin wish he was going with them instead of Sahren. To see the fabled Rey on the Glimmer--a hard blow on his shoulder broke his reverie.

"Stave, wake up. You were staring at those women," Marvat Kel'Sangran said.

"Sorry. It wasn't the women, it's where they're going. They're headed to Reynadia, all the way to Rey on the Glimmer," Stavin said, grinning up at his cousin. Marvat was on his fifth expedition and had one red stripe over four white stripes on his shoulder.

"How do you know?" Farval Kel'Dorval, the other fifth-year man asked.

"Remember the story of the caravan where there were only two women survivors? That's them," Stavin said, nodding toward the wagon again.

"Then definitely don't stare," Farval snapped. "Rape victims tend to be sensitive about a men staring at them."

"Oh?" Stavin asked in a puzzled tone, then said, "Oh!" as Farval's meaning became clear. "What should I do?"

"Nothing. Let them put it behind them. I doubt that anyone in that caravan knows who they are and they won't unless you tell them." Farval and Marvat were both giving him the same intense look and Stavin blushed. I wasn't going to say anything. I'm not a complete dunce.

Barvil called his hands together and gave his orders. "We eat at our own expense tonight, so enjoy it. We'll form on the wagons as they leave the compound in the morning. There are fifteen of them this year to take maximum advantage of Stavin's status. We're also taking a more northerly route to avoid the taxes in Coravia. That means you're not going to be able to deliver your packet to Lord General Zel'Enred, Stavin, but Sahren said that her brother Landon is going that way. I'm sure you can talk him into delivering your work to the general."

"Yes, Sir," Stavin answered.

"Set up your bed rolls in the bunkhouse, then we'll go eat." Barvil led the way to the bunkhouse they had been told to use, then walked up the road to the Black Boar Inn.

The innkeeper saw them enter and hurried over to their side. "Yes, good warriors, what is your pleasure?"

"What do you have to eat?" Barvil asked as he looked around.

"Sliced bison roast over boiled barley and carrots, good warrior," the man answered with another bow.

"Good. Food and beer for eleven," Barvil said, walking across the room to an empty table against the wall.

"As you wish, good warrior," the innkeeper said and scurried away. The food appeared within moments and the beer just a blink later. The meat was tough, but it was fresh, and after the unrelieved moons of salted or dried meat, it tasted wonderful. Barvil let his men have just two mugs of beer each, then made them switch to water or tea. Most of them nursed their second beer to avoid that horror. The night was quiet as Barvil led them back to their bedrolls.

Morning arrived too soon and they all got ready to go. Stavin went with Sahren to talk to her brother Landon. "Lan, this is Friend Stavin. He has a packet that needs to go south to Fort Kel'Vardal for Lord General Zel'Enred."

Landon bowed slightly to Stavin and said, "I'd be pleased to oblige, and I'll only charge a silver crown for the cartage."

Sahren said, "Lan," in a warning tone of voice.

"It's reasonable, Sahry," Landon replied.

"Master Sahren, I can-" Stavin began, but Sahren wasn't listening to him. She stepped forward and grabbed Landon by the collar and put her head beside his. Stavin couldn't hear what she said, but when she stepped back she was smiling and Landon looked nervous.

"I'd be happy to do a service for such a stalwart ally of our house at no charge, Friend Stavin," Landon said, but he kept his eyes on his big sister.

Stavin said, "Thank you Master Trader Landon," and handed over the carefully crafted box that contained the translated pages of the Book of Inatat.

Sahren immediately led him back toward her caravan. Stavin waited until they were out of earshot, then he looked up at her sideways and asked, "What did you say to him, Ma'am?"

Sahren kept her eyes forward as a wicked little smile crossed her lips. She replied, "I just reminded him of something he'd rather forget, and certainly hopes no one else ever finds out about."

"Like what?" Stavin asked with a grin, but Sahren just shook her head and gave him a gentle push toward his horse.

Aldric and Tavan got the number two and three slots this time while Stavin and Karvik were behind them at five and six. The others were spread out along the line with Marvat and Farval at the end. Barvil, of course, rode beside the lead wagon.

The sun was only three spans over the horizon when they left Aravad, and Stavin felt the muscles in his back tense up. Barvil had briefed all of them to be extra vigilant because of the hard winter. There were tales of starving people attacking outlying farms in search of food, and a caravan like theirs was bound to attract unfriendly attention.

Stavin found himself on the left side of the caravan this time, but it was just as dull. He took a moment to remember how bored he'd been at the beginning of the last season and laughed at the memory of his younger self and how anxious he'd been for combat.

The first night, Sahren circled her wagons and made introductions all around. The person she most wanted to introduce the warriors to was her assistant. She brought a young woman over to the warriors and smiled as all of them stood to greet her. "Barvil, this is my granddaughter, Rahlina," she said as she stopped. "She's going to be taking over my caravan when I retire."

Barvil bowed deeply. "I am pleased to meet you, Rahlina."

"Warmaster Barvil, I am very pleased to meet you," Rahlina replied, returning his bow. "Nanny Sahren has been telling us stories about you and your men all winter."

Barvil chuckled at the look on Sahren's face. "I'll bet she has. This is my son, Karvik, and our golden child, Stavin." Both young men bowed as they were introduced. "My fifth-year men are Sergeant Marvat Kel'Sangran and Farval Kel'Dorval. Fourth-years are Sergeant Sharvit Kel'Porval and Orkahn Kel'Erins. The third-year pair is Vardik Kel'Markat and Rolas Kel'Norlan. And my greenlings are Aldric Kel'Ranat and Tavan Kel'Vorash." Each of the young men bowed as he was introduced.

Sahren smiled and looked Barvil in the eye again. "This is Rahlina's last trip as an apprentice, so I'll be letting her take over occasionally. I wanted to ensure that you all know that she does have the authority to give instructions." She smiled at Rahlina for an instant, then looked at all of the warriors.

Barvil gave his men a quick glance, then bowed to Sahren. "We understand. Sort of like a young Warleader we all know." Then he grinned at Stavin's bashful blush.

 

 

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Author Bio

Loren Jones lives near Tampa, Florida. He married Pamela A. Willis in 1983 and they have stayed together to this time, and have three adult children. A US Navy veteran, Loren served as a nuclear reactor operator on attack submarines for six years before his honorable discharge in 1986. Loren makes his living as an instrumentation and controls technician and writes because the stories won't leave him alone.

TTB titles: Inadvertent Adventures - SF
Stories of the Confederated Star Systems

Stavin DragonBlessed series

  All that Glitters -- Book 1
  Traders and Traitors -- Book 2
  The Andarian Affair -- Book 3
  Farindian Summer -- Book 4
  The Coravian Conflict -- Book 5
  Gods Above and Below -- Book 6

Author web site.

 

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Traders and Traitors Copyright 2016. Loren K. Jones. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

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